Ethical Questions that Arise During Chemistry Tutoring

Teaching in an ethical fashion is a subject that I didn’t fully consider during my early career. There were ethics to be followed as a scientist, to be sure: don’t falsify data, don’t change facts to meet theories, record everything that you do in an accurate fashion, and so forth. However, when it comes to private tutoring of chemistry students, there is a fine line that sometimes get smudged, and it can have terrible effects on your reputation as an educator as well as (if you’re anything like me) your self-respect. Let me explain.

Students who pay for private tutoring are usually doing so because they are desperate for help. Either they really need a good grade from the course (this happens a lot with “pre-med” students), or they’re failing miserably and are looking for someone to lift them back up. I think that hiring a private tutor is a wonderful move by a student; it signifies that they are taking a more aggressive position in their learning, and now have a closer vested interest in succeeding in the course: they’re devoting more time and money to the problem. However, as a private tutor in chemistry, it is vital that you are as helpful as you can be, but that the help that you offer always leads the student to a better understanding of the material.

As the popularity of “online” tests / quizzes / homework increases, I (as a tutor) get multiple requests from my students to help them with these online assignments. In my mind, the correct way to proceed is to get together with the student and a computer, have the student logon and view the problems, and then watch them try to work the questions and correct their mistakes / offer explanations as things proceed. I think all educators would agree that there is nothing ethically wrong with that approach.

Internet-based tests have not been the only advance, however; we now have online video conferencing, and virtual “whiteboards”, not to mention phone calls routed over the Internet (VoIP). The popularity of these technologies is rapidly increasing, and quickly being adopted by tech-savvy students. If a student calls you over VoIP and shows you the questions online by sharing their network connection with you, and asks you to help them through the questions, is that an ethical violation? I would still say that as long as the student is making a fair attempt, and my advice comes afterwards and leads them to a greater understanding, then we are still in safe territory.

What about if access to the online practice exams / homework problems isn’t password protected, and anyone can view them and print them out? What if a student you are tutoring asks you to print out that weeks homework, complete it, and bring it to a tutoring session and talk them through how you did it? Is that an ethical violation?

What about if a student asks you to login to a system using their ID#, and print out the homework, so you can go over it together in person later on (“I don’t have a laptop / printer, can you do it for me?”)

What about if a student asks you to login to a system and complete an online practice test for them, so they can review it later? An ungraded test, one that doesn’t impact their score. Violation?

These are the types of questions that private tutors must begin to ask themselves in this age of increasing technology. The situation is complicated by the fact that you are being paid for your services. In my opinion, you need to be stern and upfront with your students. State your limits as to what you will and will not do, and what is acceptable to you and what is not; what level of contact (email, phone) is acceptable in-between paid tutoring sessions, and your general stance on what you view the student-tutor relationship to be. By drawing the line in the sand at this early stage (preferably at first contact with the new student), you prevent yourself from gradually falling down a slippery slope. You don’t find yourself making justifications or compromises.

Teachers have, I believe, an ethical obligation not only to themselves, and their students, but to the community. It doesn’t matter what your morals are in your private life or in your free time. When you are with a student, you need to be the consummate professional, or you bring down the entire profession.